By Renée S. Gordon
“In a never ending chain, thru the mud and thru the rain, closing up the gaps the shells left in their file,
They kept driving, holding tight, sometimes stopped to dig and fight.
They high-balled on, a song for every mile. It’s the RED BALL EXPRESS roaring by!”
Natchez is justifiably famous for its antebellum history and though it conjures a picture of the Old South it has other tales to tell. It is a port city situated on the Mississippi River, the southernmost big city on Highway 61, the Blues Trail. www.visitnatchez.com
The riverfront landing, Natchez-Under-the-Hill, was known as the “Barbary Coast of the Mississippi” and the bawdiest waterfront on the entire river. The city was built on the bluffs above and genteel society generally avoided the landing area from the early 18th-century until post-WWII. Silver Street offered gambling dens, brothels, bars, slave sales and was populated by the most dangerous denizens of the era.
Today, Silver Street is filled with trendy eateries, entertainment venues and if you are inclined to believe, ghosts. My favorite ghost is that of Joseph Hare, the Laughing Ghost. Hare had a Silver Street sweetie and he gifted her with all manner of jewelry. At some point he began to believe that she was unfaithful so he placed all the jewelry he had given her on her, like an anchor, and drowned her in the river. This seems to have given him so much joy that he can still be heard laughing along the riverfront.
There are several historic markers located around town. One honors Richard Wright, author of “Native Son,” who grew up there. You can view the exterior of his home at 20 East Woodlawn Street.
An important Blues Trail Marker memorializes the Natchez Rhythm Club Fire. The fire took place on April 23, 1940 and devastated the blues community. A crowd of more than 1000 was trapped and over 500 died because the windows were barred to prevent trespassers. The entire band died and morticians were called in from neighboring cities because of the huge losses. The fire is immortalized in several blues songs. www.msbluestrail.org
The Biloxi Indians inhabited the Mississippi Gulf Coast until the arrival in April 1699 of French explorers sent by King Louis XIV and led by Pierre Le Moyne Sieur d’Iberville. They planted the first of eight nation’s flags in the Ocean Springs area and erected Fort Maurepas. www.gulfcoast.org
It is documented that the French named the bay area the Bay of St. Louis because they landed there on St. Louis Day. It was incorporated as Bay St. Louis in 1818. Self-guided Bay St. Louis Historic Walking Tour brochures are available. The trail is 1.5-miles with additional, optional sites.
Sites not to be missed include St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church. The church was constructed in 1923 and includes the famous “Christ in the Oak” mural located behind the altar. www.neworleanschurches.com/baystrose/baystrose
The 100 Men Hall was built in 1923 to function as a performance space for black shows. The country’s top African American entertainers performed in the 28,000-sq. ft. building as a stop on the “Chitlin Circuit,” venues that featured black performers because they could not perform in white establishments. The building has been restored and a Blues Trail Marker was placed there in 2011.
A little further afield is the $30-million Infinity Science Center at NASA’s Stennis Space Center. The complex opened on April 12, 2012 on 199-acres with 30,000-sq. ft. of gallery space. www.infinitysciencecenter.org
Your visit begins on the exterior in Discovery Plaza with a magnificent work by wood sculptor Marlin Miller. “The Eagle Has Landed” is carved from a 30-ft. tall oak tree that was killed in Katrina and is Miller’s only work to incorporate metal. The metal used consists of hardware from space shuttle tests, turbine blades and engine parts from a space shuttle. The statue is dedicated to Apollo astronaut Fred Haise.
The complex houses more than 30 agencies and sits in the middle of a 125,000-acre green buffer zone that can never be developed. More oceanographers work here than any other facility in the world and it is the premiere rocket engine test complex. This is the site of all riverine training for Navy Seals and Seal Team 6, the US Navy elite counter-terrorism unit, trained here. “Act of Valor,” the 2012 action film, was filmed here and all tsunami buoys, as seen in “Battleship,” are made here.
Gallery tours are offered of the two-story museum. The first floor exhibits interpret the history of exploration and presents “Science on a Sphere.” Animated images are shown on a 68-inch in diameter orb created by four projectors.
Second floor highlights include a walk-thru space station. Of particular note are the tools and equipment including a roll of duct tape. Visitors are intrigued by the Controlled Environment Agriculture display of Butterhead lettuce. This prototype display allows you to see the crop at various stages in its 35-day growth cycle. This has the potential to substantially reduce world hunger.
The Infinity Café features Gulf Coast cuisine and the Infinity Gift Shop offers NASA logo items. The center is open daily and admission includes a bus tour of NASA Stennis Space Center. Sign up on arrival because reservations are required. www.ssc.nasa.gov
The Bylocchy Indians are the namesake of Biloxi. They, along with several other tribes, met d’Iberville when he landed. The French relocated the capitol of the Louisiana territory to Biloxi from 1720 to 1723. Shortly after Mississippi became a state in 1817 Biloxi became a southerners’ summer resort and by 1900 it was deemed the “Seafood Capitol of the World.” Legalized gambling brought prosperity to the city in the 1990s just as Hurricane Katrina brought devastation. Biloxi has made a tremendous recovery and once again they are open for business.
The 1848 cast iron Biloxi Lighthouse is the iconic symbol of the city. The tower is 62-ft. tall and lined with brick. The lighthouse was electrified in 1926 and automated in 1938. Decommissioned in 1967, it is listed on the NRHP and is named by Ripley’s as the only lighthouse on a median in the middle of a four-lane highway. A limited number of tours are offered.
George Ohr, the “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” is the focus of the Frank Gehry designed Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. The campus was designed in 2003 as a series of cantilever-roofed, museum pods on a 4-acres with each structure having an individual mission. A large collection of Ohr’s incredibly creative Mississippi clay pottery is on display.
The Pleasant and Georgia Reed Interpretive Center is also showcased. The original cottage was relocated to the museum prior to being destroyed by Katrina. The current 1400-sq. ft. camelback cottage is a reconstruction built using the original plans. The Reeds, freed slaves, purchased a 50 ft. X 104 ft. plot of land in 1887 and Pleasant, a skilled craftsman and carpenter, constructed the house. The house now interprets the life of regional African Americans and there is a 10-minute orientation film. www.georgeohr.org
Beauvoir, “Beautiful View,” was the last residence of the President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis. The home sits on 51-acres 23-ft above sea level with an unobstructed view of the Gulf of Mexico. The Louisiana raised cottage was built with slave labor with cypress floors, heart of pine and a slate roof in 1852 as a summer home. Davis visited the mansion in the 1870s, moved there in 1877 and purchased the estate two years later for $5,500.
Tours of the house begin with a film in the visitor center and proceed to the house. Inside the public areas have painted walls and 14.5-ft. ceilings using 132 different colors. Approximately 85 percent of the furnishings belonged to the Davis family.
Also on the grounds are two cottages, a statue of Davis and a presidential library and museum scheduled for completion this summer. www.beauvoir.org
Just over an hour’s drive is the city of Hattiesburg, nicknamed the hub because of its ideal placement where more than seven rail lines and state highways meet. The city was founded in 1882 by Captain Hardy and named in honor of his spouse. www.hattiesburg.org
Though Hattiesburg is a relatively “new” city it has several unique historic structures and tour routes. The 115-acre Hattiesburg Historic Neighborhood District is one of the largest in the South with 450 buildings. It features a variety of architectural styles that were employed from 1884-1930 as well as pocket parks and dense tree canopies. The District was added to the register of National Historic Places in 1980. www.hattiesburghistoricneighborhood.com
The Freedom Summer Trail is a 16-site driving trail that begins at the Visitor Center. Locations interpret Freedom Summer 1964 and Civil Rights history and events. Hattiesburg was the center of the Freedom School movement with the largest Freedom Summer site in Mississippi, nearly 100 volunteers and approximately 700 pupils. Stops are clearly marked and audio tours and maps are available.
One of the city’s special treasures is the 1929 Neo-Classical Revival Style and Art Deco Saenger Theater. The theater was built as a silent movie palace with handpainted tiles and crystal chandeliers. The theater was renovated for $3.75-million in 2001 and retains an original projector and Robert Morton Pipe Organ. www.hattiesburgsaenger.com/saenger
The Hattiesburg Zoo at Kamper Park is a delightful way to spend the day. The exhibits are divided into four habitats, Asian, Australian, African veldt, and MS. Visitors can ride around the 12-acre zoo on a train and take a ride on a carousel. www.zoohattiesburg.com
Hattiesburg has much to offer but if forced to choose my favorite site it would be the African American Military History Museum. This museum is listed on the NRHP and is situated inside the functioning sole remaining WWII USO Club built for African American soldiers. Opened in 1942 the structure contains original flooring and replica furniture. Visitors are greeted by 40s-era music on the exterior of the building.
Interior galleries relate the story of black soldiers from the Buffalo Soldiers to the present through dioramas, interactive displays, photographs, artifacts and memorabilia. The entire museum is a highlight but visitors should pay close attention to the stories of Cathay Williams, Jesse Brown, Eugene Bullard, Ruth Earl and the under reported story of the Red Ball Express.
The Express ran from August to November 1944 and was responsible for supplying the European Theater of Operations (ETO) with 22,644,609 tons of supplies. The job was critical, dangerous and more than 70 percent of the soldiers were black. Guests can climb in a truck and try to make the run. The tour ends with the Hall of Honor and homage to black contributions from Crispus Attucks to Barack Obama as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.
Before you leave visit the USO soda fountain and have refreshments. You should also make a purchase from the gift shop to support the museum. www.armedforcesmuseum.us
Trip planning information is available at www.visitmississippi.org
I wish you smooth travels!
Read about the Red Ball Express in “The Road to Victory” by David Colley.